How to be the star of a cocktail party where you don't know anyone

You can be a stellar guest — even if you don't know a soul

Some people love cocktail parties. So when they get an invitation to an early-evening gathering offering drinks and hors d'oeuvres, they do a little internal happy dance. Lots of people standing around talking in small groups? Awesome! Moving around from room to room, meeting a bunch of complete strangers? Yay! The clink of glasses, the babble of voices, all intertwined with some sort of peppy background music? Bring it on!

And then there's the rest of us. You don't have to be a complete introvert to feel overwhelmed and awkward at a cocktail party, especially if you don't know anyone there other than the host(s) who invited you.

Since we're entering the season of cocktail parties (invitations to annual fundraising kickoffs and business mixers are already in the (e)mail, and these will soon give way to holiday festivities), now is a good time to review five easy steps you can take to turn these dreaded events into truly enjoyable, positive experiences … not only for you, but for your hosts and fellow guests as well.

1. Stop being so negative

You've received your invitation. Are you delaying your response because the very idea of attending a cocktail party makes you cringe? You think you're too reserved and/or not interesting enough to be a good guest? Knock off the negativity already. An invitation is an inclusion — it means your host thinks you will be a valuable addition to her gathering. Allow yourself to feel flattered. Focus on the reasons you have been chosen for an invitation: You're well educated. You've rebuilt a vintage Harley Davidson from parts you found on eBay. Your great aunt left you a trust fund, and the local theater group wants a piece of it. Everyone has positive qualities and attributes; focus on yours and allow them to build your own self-assurance.

Social anxiety can quickly turn into a negative feedback loop. If you allow your brain to paint a picture of yourself as a cocktail party flop, standing in the corner and nibbling on your nails, guess what will happen? Instead, visualize yourself moving about with confidence and conversing with ease, and you'll project both qualities… even if you're still feeling a little anxious inside.

Also reflect on potential positive outcomes for you if you attend this event: You might make valuable new business connections. You might run into some old friends or schoolmates. At the very least, you are going to be served interesting bite-sized bits of food and tasty drinks that someone else has made for you. That alone is worth the price of admission.

2. Do your homework and devise a strategy

If a cocktail party feels like work to you, then treat it as such. Would you walk into a business meeting without doing your background research and without an agenda? Of course you wouldn't. So approach your upcoming event with a strategy in hand.

Ask your host to share who else might be coming, and if there are any people she would particularly like you to meet. Perhaps she might give you a little background information. It might be her nephew from out of town is a little shy, but that he loves Harleys as much as you do. Terrific! Maybe her boss will be in attendance, and she's a little nervous about that, but since the two of you attended the same small private college, you might connect as fellow Badgers. You can do that.

This tactic actually serves multiple purposes — it shows your host that you are genuinely interested in contributing to the success of her event, it gives her a chance to achieve her own entertaining goals, and provides you with some good intel and a few ready-made introductions on the night of. Simply having an agenda and a plan will help you feel more comfortable meeting new people.

So will the right clothes, which brings us to...

3. Dress for success

There is no easier event to dress for than a cocktail party. Unlike more formal affairs (Black tie? No black tie? How long should my dress be?) or informal get-togethers (Is my T-shirt too tight? Are jeans okay?), cocktail parties don't require a great deal of wardrobe worry. Both men and women can attend a cocktail party wearing business attire. Depending on where you live, men might keep on the dark suit but lose the tie, and women might unbutton enough to show off a striking necklace. (An unusual piece of jewelry, by the way, is an excellent conversation starter. "I love your bracelet. Does it have a story?" is an invitation for anyone to open up about a recent trip to Turkey.)

Women also have the alternative of changing into something a little more elegant — and, fortuitously, there is an entire category of dress devoted just to the cocktail category. Easy! Just stay away from the sequins.

Whatever you do, make sure your clothes fit. Cocktail parties require you to stand, walk, sit, stand again, and walk around some more, usually while holding your own food and drink. If your shirt is too tight, your skirt too short, or your shoes cause your dogs to start barking ten minutes in, you're going to be miserable. Choose an outfit that makes you feel sophisticated, confident, and comfortable.

4. Be a good listener

The need to enter into and maintain conversation with relative strangers is perhaps the greatest source of cocktail party anxiety for most people. Nothing brings back the angst of junior high school faster than the fear you will approach a happily chattering group only to have everyone in it abruptly stop and stare at you. Fortunately, anyone old enough to be at a cocktail party is not in junior high school anymore, so accept the fact that you're in friendlier territory now. Your fellow guests are there for the same reasons you are — to meet people! So let them meet you. Once your host has provided you with your first introduction or two, you'll find yourself in a great position to begin conversations.

And that's not hard. Provided you avoid the usual danger zones of politics and religion (and the ever-crass "so-what-do-you-do-for-a-living"), you'll find that a couple of leading questions open the door to all kinds of interesting subjects. Ask the person next to you how he knows your host. Compliment that unusual piece of jewelry or clothing — but not any personal attribute such as a body part or foreign accent; save those observations for singles bars.

Say, "Tristan tells me you like hiking/reading/exotic reptiles," followed by, "What is your most recent trail/book/pet?" Then wait for an answer. And listen to it.

Here's a secret: You don't have to be a glib, articulate speaker to succeed at conversation. In fact, the best conversationalists aren't talkers, they're listeners. Cocktail parties are full of people who are trying too hard; people who are thinking of the next thing they want to say rather than paying attention to what is said to them, looking over other people's shoulders in search of someone else to impress.

Be the opposite of those people. Make eye contact with the person speaking to you. Lean in a little, not in a creepy, in-your-personal-space way, but tilt your head forward to indicate someone has your full attention. Let him tell you everything he has to say without interrupting, and then ask a follow-up question that indicates you have in fact heard him, and are interested in hearing more.

"Inspiration Point? Sounds like the views must have been terrific. Do you have any pictures on your phone?"

"Sounds like you disagree with the decision to include authors from outside the UK this year. Why?"

"I never knew Burmese Pythons could be so affectionate. Would they make good pets for people who don't have much experience with reptiles?"

5. Quit while you're ahead

Since cocktail parties are all about moving and mingling, plan on spending no more than 10 or at most 15 minutes conversing with a single person or group of people. Nothing upsets a host more than seeing her guests in static clumps of previous acquaintance, filling up on the free martinis and appetizers. (Side note here: Be moderate as you partake of both food and alcohol. They are they for you to enjoy, certainly, but if you are recalled as the lout who stuffed his face and got sloppy drunk at a cocktail party, you will not be fondly remembered.)

There comes a point in conversation — usually between the five- and 10-minute mark — when it is easy to make a transition. One of you will finish speaking, and there will be a bit of silence. That's when you say, with sincerity, "It has been so nice to meet you. I really enjoyed learning so much about hiking/books/snakes."

If the acquaintance is one you'd like to further, you might offer your business card with a simple, "I'd love to continue the conversation. Perhaps we can have coffee one of these days." If not, then wish the other person a good evening and move away to the bar or another conversation.

If you are feeling exceptionally comfortable, you've met a few people, and really want to score points with your host, you can even offer to introduce the person you are speaking with to another guest. ("You might like to meet Brendan Kim. He's a hiker, too!") Once you can move beyond your own networking and start facilitating others', you will be a bona fide cocktail party star.

And hey, you might just find yourself having a good time. Happy mingling!


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